DETROIT – When C.J. Cron went down with a knee injury Monday, it looked like he could spend some time on the injured list. His comments Wednesday morning make it sound like the Detroit Tigers could be without him for a long time.
Cron seems to think he’ll have to undergo surgery at some point, but said he wanted to see if it will stabilize in time to return for the 2020 season. It appears even if the Tigers get him back at some point, it might not be for awhile and he likely wouldn’t be at 100% health.
If the team is serious about getting into the playoffs this year -- a real possibility considering more than half the league will qualify -- a move will have to be made.
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Right now, the Tigers have moved Jeimer Candelario across the infield to fill in at first base, but he’s a much better third baseman both in the field and at the plate than Dawel Lugo or Willi Castro. The Tigers shouldn’t compound the hole at first base by creating another problem at third.
How do they go about addressing that need in such a short, strange season? Well, that’s what Al Avila has to figure out. Here are some of the options he could consider.
When it comes to first base, there are two players who come to mind from the Tigers’ alternate training site: Frank Schwindel and Brandon Dixon.
The difference between the two is the ultimate known vs. unknown discussion.
If the Tigers call up Dixon, they know exactly what they’re going to get. He led the team with 15 home runs last season, but he struck out far too often and didn’t provide much value beyond hitting the ball over the fence.
Dixon has some extra-base pop -- 20 doubles and four triples to go with those home runs last season -- and gives Ron Gardenhire the added luxury of position flexibility.
Schwindel is a more intriguing option because he has never gotten a real chance on an MLB roster but showed some power during spring training and summer camp.
The 28-year-old has a career minor league OPS of .790 and hit 16 home runs and 20 doubles in Triple-A last season. He doesn’t strike out much, but his career on-base percentage is nothing special, either.
There’s a chance both Dixon and Schwindel could come up and be serviceable as everyday players, but if the Tigers really want to replace Cron’s production, they’ll have to reach outside the organization.
There aren’t many free agents to choose from in the middle of the season, and the ones who are out there are free agents for a reason.
Greg Bird was recently designated for assignment by the Texas Rangers and could be a high-upside play for the Tigers. He was a highly regarded prospect who raked for half a season when he got called up in 2015. But since then, injuries and inconsistent playing time have kept him from finding his footing at the MLB level.
The most playing time Bird earned with the New York Yankees came in 2018, when he hit 11 home runs and 16 doubles in 272 at-bats while slashing .199/.286/.386. He’s not a perfect option, but if he hits a half-dozen home runs and posts an average OPS, he wouldn’t be much different than what the Tigers expected from Cron.
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If they want to dig a little deeper, the Tigers could make a call to someone like Mark Trumbo, who didn’t sign this offseason after missing nearly all of 2019 due to knee surgery.
Trumbo has a career .761 OPS across 10 MLB seasons and is a safe bet to maintain a 20 homer pace. He hit 17 home runs and 12 doubles in just 90 games as recently as 2018, and combined for 70 home runs across two full seasons in 2016 and 2017.
The Tigers aren’t going to part with any of their top prospects just to get into a 16-team postseason this year, and player value might be hard to gauge in a shortened season, so it’ll be difficult to pull of a trade before the Aug. 31 deadline.
But if Avila wants to shop, there are some options.
Brandon Belt could be a trade candidate. The San Francisco Giants are buried behind the Los Angeles Dodgers, San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies in the NL West and don’t expect to compete in the near future. Belt, a 32-year-old Giants lifer, is under contract through next season and could be a temporary veteran presence for the Tigers as they usher in a new crop of position players.
Belt has won two World Series titles in San Francisco, which could be attractive to the Tigers. The Giants might be happy to get his $17.2 million off the books for 2021, while the Tigers have plenty of space to take on that deal for one year, as Miguel Cabrera’s $30 million is their only post-arbitration commitment beyond this season.
Despite playing in the worst offensive environment in baseball, Belt has been solid at the plate his entire career, posting a .798 OPS across 10 seasons with high OBPs and consistent extra-base power. For a team that needs to replace Cron’s pop and also add someone with on-base skills, Belt is the perfect short-term fit.
If not Belt, the Tigers could see if the Boston Red Sox have any interest in selling high on Mitch Moreland, who’s off to a scorching start in 2020.
In 11 games, the 34-year-old is slashing .303/.361/.879 with six home runs in 36 plate appearances.
Obviously, Moreland won’t keep that up over a full season, but he’s a reasonable bet to be even better than Cron for the next 45 games.
Moreland has a cheap $3 million team option for next season, so he’s a perfect short-term investment for the Tigers as they transition from rebuild to playoff contender. He’s played in the World Series three times -- twice with the Rangers and once with the Red Sox -- and has one ring.
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The Red Sox are in last place and have a starting rotation that’s in shambles. They would likely be open to moving a 34-year-old first baseman who’s not part of their long-term plans to make room for someone like Michael Chavis to take the job every day.
We don’t really know what the trade deadline will look like over the next couple of weeks, but it would make sense if players are discounted because there are fewer games left in the season. That could open the door for the Tigers to make a minor move, even if they aren’t full-blown buyers.